FEATURE-Slavery campaign closes gaps among U.S. evangelicals
By Ed Stoddard
DALLAS, April 2 (Reuters) - U.S. evangelical Christians are divided on global warming, the minimum wage and other issues, but they are united behind a new campaign to end modern slavery around the world.
Following a trail blazed two centuries ago, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Focus on the Family, two U.S. evangelical groups whose leaders have disagreed over other issues, are both supporting a campaign against bonded labor, human trafficking and military recruitment of children.
The campaign, "The Amazing Change," was set up by the makers of "Amazing Grace," a movie about the efforts of William Wilberforce, himself an evangelical, to end British participation in the slave trade 200 years ago.
"We are carrying forward the banner of evangelical concern for human rights," said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Activists say it is crucial to highlight an issue that many people are unaware of.
"Most people you ask don't know that there are slaves today," said Pamela Livingston, vice president of the Washington-based International Justice Mission, a Christian-based organization that campaigns to free slaves overseas with a network of lawyers and social workers.
Its work has led to the freeing of 78 slaves from a south Asian brick kiln where they were forced to labor to work off unpayable debts. From 2004 to 2006, the efforts of its staff in Thailand led to the rescue of 129 trafficking victims in Malaysia and Thailand. During the same period in Cambodia, 183 victims of trafficking were released.
Evangelicals, a term that refers mostly to Protestants who place emphasis on personal conversion, draw on a tradition of Christian opposition to slavery in the U.S. South -- although many white evangelicals were subsequent opponents of the 1960s civil rights movement to grant equality to blacks.
Recently, the U.S. evangelical movement has disagreed over issues such as whether to campaign to reduce reliance on fossil fuels to reduce global warming.
Cizik said the National Association of Evangelicals' fights against slavery and climate change both stemmed from Christian compassion for the poor, who are seen as suffering most from increased droughts and food shortages.
By contrast, Focus on the Family, which has urged people to watch "Amazing Grace" and support the related campaign, has been wary of climate change action, seeing it as a distraction from efforts to end abortion and block gay rights.
But abolishing slavery, be it children kidnapped for warfare in Africa or women traded for sex, unites U.S. Christians on the left and the right.
Highlighting the diversity, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a Christian conservative, and prominent liberal preacher Jim Wallis have both raised the banner for "The Amazing Change" campaign.
For those on the right like Brownback -- a convert to Catholicism with strong ties to evangelical Protestants -- it fits his "compassionate conservatism."
"William Wilberforce and his monumental achievement ... is the story of heroic leadership and courageous action on behalf of the weak and marginalized," Brownback, a candidate for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, recently wrote.
Some commentators note that Wilberforce's conservatism may be attractive to some but many of his views look outdated.
"I think people like Brownback embrace Wilberforce because he was deeply religious and deeply conservative ... Do they know what they're embracing?," asked Adam Hochschild, author of "Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery."
"Wilberforce was a man who was opposed to extending the franchise beyond the five percent or so of the British population who could then vote, who personally was uncomfortable around black people ... and who felt women had absolutely no role in politics," he told Reuters.
Some critics of politically active conservative Christians in the United States -- often dubbed the Religious Right -- would say this profile fits their movement, which is suspicious of feminism and often lauds wealth and power.
Whatever their stripe, modern anti-slavery campaigners would do well to emulate some of the tactics of their predecessors -- including an 18th century boycott of slave-grown sugar products in Britain, experts say.
For example, they could begin with the startling fact that it is legal to deposit money earned from the sweat of slaves or the trade of slaves into U.S. bank accounts -- provided the cash was garnered overseas.
The problem, according to Raymond Baker, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, is America's two-pronged approach to money laundering.
"There is one list for money derived from domestic crimes which is long. The one for foreign crimes is very short," said Baker, author of 'Capitalism's Achilles Heel: Dirty Money and How to Renew the Free-Market System.'
Not included in the list of money knowingly derived from overseas illicit activities are crimes such as slavery, environmental crimes and trafficking in women.
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